I am one of the crying mothers. On the first day of school, I let loose. But my sentimentality is becoming increasingly problematic, as my daughter, Maddy, is now a sixth grader. I find myself crying alone.
I recall last year we woke up extra early, even though her clothes had been laid out for days. I made pancakes, and we gave ourselves an additional five minutes of driving time.
After we arrived at school, Maddy stopped briefly to adjust her backpack on the walk from the car toward the school. I noticed she looked concerned and thought she probably needed to reflect on a new, rather monumental, transition. At her school, the younger children line up with their classmates in the front of the school, while the older kids – starting in fifth grade – convene each morning in the back playground.
“Are you ready?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, now smiling. “I’ll see you after school.”
I told her I’d walk her around back, to the playground.
“That’s okay,” she said. “Bye.”
At this point, we hadn’t even gotten out of the parking lot. My daughter was bidding me farewell a mere twenty or so steps away from our car. Experts in child development would applaud her reaction as healthy. At the age of ten, this was exactly what she should have been saying to me.
But I don’t need a child-development expert. I need a parent-development expert.
Clearly I am not handling these transitions with the grace and ease expected of an adult. Didn’t Maddy really mean to say, “Great mom, and why don’t you come up- stairs and meet my new teacher too?” Not, “Okay, bye.”
She acted like a first-day-of-school veteran, while I’m still in training. Sure I’m thrilled she’s hitting her marks with all this development rigmarole, but my timing seems to be off; I’m six years behind. This is old hat for her, this first-day-of-school stuff.
Not so much for me.
I recall reading about successfully navigating transitions. Don’t show them your ambivalence, the authors advised. Well, Maddy certainly wasn’t showing hers. She greeted her classmates and they headed off, busily chatting about an issue so important that it took precedence over a goodbye hug.
I greeted a few parents and teachers I knew, and then started walking back to my parked car, grasping my coffee cup. That’s when I noticed them – the congregation of concerned parents hovering around the kindergarten class. They outnumbered the children. I knew there would be some free-flowing tears among smiles and conflicted emotions.
I recall seeing no tears among the parents of the fifth graders, only salutations and some laughter.
I walked over to the crush of kindergarten parents. Their eyes red, lipstick smeared. They were putting up a good front. Their hands continued waving, even after their children could no longer see them.
I stood with them. I cried. These are my people.
(This essay was published last fall in Martha's Vineyard magazine but it seemed appropriate to post on this first day of school.)